Grappling is going to the girls.
Well, maybe not exclusively.
But there are a record number of girls on the roster of this year’s Bainbridge High wrestling team, a comparatively super-sized squad of 22 students total.
Four girls, led by returning senior, then-sole female on the squad Rachel Longridge (who subsequently withdrew, at least temporarily, from competition), will be sporting Spartan colors on the mat this season, including last year’s stat keeper Caroline Michaels, younger sister of multi-season sport vet Nate Michaels, who graduated last year.
“We’ve never had more than one at a time,” said returning BHS Head Coach Dan Pippinger. “It’s good to have them. The girls have great energy. They’re good teammates, they’re focused, they want to learn, they’re eager and appreciative.”
Having lost just two seniors to graduation last year, and having only two seniors set to depart at the close of this year and a larger-than-usual group of underclassmen having turned out for tryouts, Pippinger said the growing interest in the sport by younger students, and more girls than ever, “Might be the start of something.”
The numbers bear him out.
Last year 24 students turned out but only 20 ultimately stuck it out and made the roster. The year before that, just 16 Spartans came to tryouts.
Attracting younger athletes to wrestling has long been a problem on Bainbridge, with previous seasons seeing primarily paltry turnouts and slim rosters abounding in this, perhaps the most misunderstood of high school sports.
“I hear good things just about the positive experience that people are having,” he said. “I’m still coaching all age levels of kids so that helps; starting in with the younger kids and having them enjoy it and be excited about it. That’s all helpful in terms of building a positive culture around wrestling.”
Hoping to ignite interest, Pippinger has been leading a youth program. This year’s increased crop of young faces, he said, is encouraging.
“Since they don’t have an official middle school team I have run a free after-school club in the spring for Sakai and Woodward kids,” the coach said. “It’s not a huge program, but you get a few of those kids who are pretty enthusiastic and by the time they’re in high school, they’ve got some experience and they’re inviting some of their friends to be part of it.”
Additionally, at least two newbies fall on the other end of the student age spectrum: former football regulars Tyler Picket (one of the squad’s only two seniors) and Julian Blythe.
Both gridiron vets “wanted to try something,” Pippinger said. “They’re linemen [with] bigger builds. It’s good to have; they’ve been great.“
Leading the team this year is returning senior, captain Oleg Maguire, a one-time state championship competitor.
“He’ll have a good season,” the coach said, adding he looks to the senior Spartan to primarily model “the way that we practice. Not just our behavior in the wrestling room but when we’re traveling and how we treat each other, and modeling lots of respect.”
Additionally, Maguire leads warm-ups and stretching sessions, assisted by a rotating co-captain (or captains) — a weekly title assigned by Pippinger and his assistants to those on the team currently exemplifying the “championship mindset.”
It’s more work than play, however.
“I always make my captains, for the first part of the year, they’re the ones mopping the mats,” the coach said. “I’m a real advocate for servant-leadership. So if you’re going to be leader, you’re not on a throne: You are carrying a mop. That’s my opinion about that and that position.”
Having a predominantly junior team this year, plus several true newcomers to the sport, Pippinger said the focus on the fundamentals in the early weeks of the season has been more intense than usual — though truly the focus of training rarely shifts far from the basics.
“It’s hard as a coach because you have so much information — and remembering that there’s no way these kids are going to pick up all that, I know — and they’re not going to be good at it if I try [and make them],” he said. “I keep trying to whittle it down and stick to having a few things that we do really well, rather than a bunch of things we don’t do very well. That makes it easier when you have new kids coming in.
“I should see the same move with different levels of intensity and precision.”
In that respect, the first outing of the year was a perhaps predictably mixed bag. The Spartans broke even at their first match Thursday, Nov. 29, a doubleheader at O’Dea against the host school and Eastside Catholic.
Against EC, the Spartans soared 48-30, notching eight wins in 13 bouts. Against O’Dea, however, they did not fare as well and were bested 43-30 in the end, though the island squad did rack up five wins.
“We didn’t match up great with O’Dea,” Pippinger said. “I think overall if we had matched up well, it could have gone the other way.
“We’re learning, we’re playing.”
Being one of the smallest squads in the school’s athletic program, Pippinger said camaraderie and tribalism are both the strength and potential weakness of the team.
“I think the challenge is [that] through the wrestling season you get pretty tight, and so with new kids coming in … there’s a tightness and you have to kind of pull it apart a little bit to let new people in,” he said. “It takes some time to rebuild that bond and have it be inclusive.”
Even so, he describes this year’s team as “pretty well connected [with] lots of good support.”
“The kids are learning to be all-inclusive and figuring out what it really means to be in an individual sport where you’re depending on your teammates,” he said. “It’s different than swimming; I can go swim laps all by myself forever. You can’t come in and wrestle by yourself. The amount of dependency you have on your teammates is really, really significant.”
Though early in the season, Pippinger said several Spartans have better-than-decent shots at making it to State.
Maguire, of course, is the favorite and expected to return to the Tacoma Dome in February. Additionally, Pippinger said he expects at least Hiram Topham, Garrett Swanson, Cameron Williams, Ben Dunscombe and Doug Takada to advance to the big show.
“We’ll see if we can sneak some others in there just by getting better,” Pippinger added.
Rounding out the roster this year is Sagel Bush, Harrison Cate, Levi Field-Bennett, Katie Irvin, Finn Malloy, Clayton Marsh, Zoe Pells, Louis Turri and Indigo Weappa.
After their so-so debut on the road, the Spartans hosted their inaugural home match Thursday, Dec. 6, wrestling against Garfield and Franklin. They will next wrestle at home at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10 against Lakeside and Bishop Blanchet.
This year’s annual BHS-based tournament, the Island Invitational, will begin at 7 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 12 and feature athletes from Kingston, Kennedy Catholic, Olympic, Port Angeles and Sequim.